50/50 for April 8th, 2024

Historic predictions from the National Weather Service, as well as my own recollection and records of April weather give us a 50/50 chance of having clear skies here in Central Texas and the rest of the state.  As we’re sitting here today under a band of cloud cover that spans the entire eclipse path with the possible exception of upstate New York and Maine, I’m not overly optimistic about the chances of being able to drive a few hours to get out from under any clouds we may have here, but you never know.  

We’re still planning to host an event here for friends and family, and we’re open to others who may wish to come enjoy the eclipse with us.  We’re still getting settled in our new house, so some of the other things I had hoped to have done by eclipse time aren’t going to happen, but there’s still room for day guests for the event.  That said, I’m also prepared to load up the truck and drive to Dallas or Fredericksburg if the weather doesn’t cooperate!  

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Planning for April 8, 2024 Solar Eclipse

Never look at the sun without eye protection!

The next great total solar eclipse is now less than a year away, with a path from Mexico, up through Texas and much of the Eastern United States, leaving through northern New York and Maine. Given the rarity of such an event many people will be planning to make the trip to see the eclipse somewhere along the path. While the rest of the country will see a partial (penumbral) eclipse, only those along the marked path will see the Sun totally blocked by our Moon. Having had the opportunity to see the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse from Ravenna Nebraska, I have to say that it is an indescribable experience that you have to see for yourself!

2024 Eclipse PathPath of the 2024 solar eclipse, courtesy of Xavier Jubier’s interactive Google Map.

Here in Central Texas, we will get a beautiful view of a total solar eclipse across most of the Hill Country, with the centerline crossing through (or very near) Kerrville, Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock State Park, Lake Buchanan, and Lampasas, continuing on through Gatesville, Hillsboro, Ennis, Sulphur Springs, and Clarksville. Most of Austin , Dallas/Fort Worth, Waco, and about half of San Antonio will also experience at least a short period of totality.

Path of 2024 solar eclipse through Texas.

Orion Ranch Observatory is situated about 19.5 miles off the centerline, so we’ll have almost four minutes and eleven seconds of totality compared to the 4:24.7 on the centerline.  For the extra 14 seconds of totality, it’s really not worth fighting with moving all my equipment to the centerline, assuming the weather holds.  Based on our weather this year, I’d say we’re about a 50:50 chance of being clear vs. cloudy, which matches the predictions for the area based on twenty years of data (see below).  Still, Texas is the best chance in the country and only western Mexico would be better.  We’re hoping to have a big event here (fill out the contact form if you’re interested in joining us), but I plan to look for options within driving distance, just in case.  My uncle’s farm is down by Fredericksburg, so I’m somewhat covered to the south, and Hillsboro would be easy to get to going north.  Even further gets us near Paris, TX, where my wife grew up!

Orion Ranch Observatory Totality

There are plenty of other excellent opportunities for visitors to the hill country.  The Eagle Eye Observatory (formerly the Austin Astronomical Society’s dark sky site) at Canyon of the Eagles on the north side of Lake Buchanan is just past the centerline, which passes right through the Burnet County Park on the north side of the lake.  There’s another park on the south side which is also on centerline.

Lake Buchanan and Surrounding Area including Oatmeal, (home of Orion Ranch) 

About half way between Burnet and Fredericksburg is Enchanted Rock State Park.  I doubt they’d let anyone set up a telescope on the rock, but imagine the view from up there and watching the oncoming shadow!  There appear to be some neat places to stay around the area as well.  

Enchanted Rock State Park and area.

Enchanted Rock

Now, as to weather, Jay Anderson has an excellent website that covers the weather forecast for the entire path of the eclipse.  Below are a couple of his images showing what we can expect.  As my own experience predicted, we’re at the 50% chance mark through most of Texas for that time of year, but that’s better than the rest of the country!

Cloud Fraction Map for April

Cloud Fraction Chart for April

It’s easy to find information on the eclipse with a simple web search, but eclipse2024.org has put together a very good set of resources and links, including viewing locations and an article on why you must see the total eclipse and not just a partial eclipse.  There’s also plenty of good information on viewing and safety, as well as links to buy viewing glasses.  There’s also information there on this year’s annular eclipse in October.  It will be passing just south of Fredericksburg on a Saturday, so I’ll probably try getting down there if I can!  

So happy observing!  I hope you get a chance to see something like this as it’s something you’ll never forget.  Feel free to contact us if you’re interested in attending our event at Orion Ranch Observatory.  And always remember:

Never look at the sun without eye protection!



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Updating my All Sky Camera

My all sky camera had been out of operation for a year or more due to a flakey USB interface.  I’m not sure how much of that was related to my observatory PC as other USB devices give me problems there too, but basically I’d just get a handful of pictures before the camera would go offline.  There haven’t been any advances in USB over Ethernet (at least not in an affordable price range), thus, I decided to upgrade my unit with an embedded stick PC.  I bought a this new stick PC from Amazon (couldn’t find my old one, but it was failing on me anyway), but it was too big to fit in my old housing. 

Thus I altered the design to make the shell the outside diameter of the dome, but flared it down to the original diameter at the base so I didn’t have to redesign everything else.  It worked, but wasn’t terribly easy to get the thing assembled.  I also replaced the dome as it was pretty badly fogged.  Unfortunately I couldn’t get quite enough current to it through the 12V camera lead I had there for power, and POE couldn’t quite handle it either, so I ended up having to add a DC-DC converter to take the 24V supply voltage and give regulated 12V at higher current.  That made things really tight, so I’ll be redesigning the whole thing to have a wider base and more fan.  I need to do it anyway as the base is starting to collapse.  The camera isn’t quite in focus, and there’s a spot that hopefully can be cleaned off as opposed to a burn spot on the sensor, but I’m not getting back into it until I’m ready to replace everything!  The PC also has some bright blue LEDs, but luckily it doesn’t appear to affect the imaging.


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ORO Back Online!

Well, after about two years of being shut down and occupied with the construction of our new house, I’ve finally started taking some time to get back into astrophotography.  On Black Friday we started looking at solar scopes and H-Alpha filters and I ended up buying a used DayStar Gemini Quark. 

Using my QHY5III178 as a monochrome camera, I was able to capture a few videos and get them processed into some reasonably good images.

After that, I managed to repair my CGE Pro (see the video at https://youtu.be/UoY_97RK67w) and rebuilt my imaging rig using a mini PC that rides on the OTA.  This eliminates all the long control cables from the mount back to the laptop I traditional used.  It’s a bit tricky to run “headless” without a monitor or keyboard, and my traditional Chrome Remote Desktop doesn’t work reliably.  Luckily it has Windows Pro and thus I can use Windows Remote Desktop Connection, which works well over the local network. 

I haven’t had much integration time so far, but I’ve finished one short imaging session of M33. 

The observatory still needs a lot of clean-up, as does everything else around here, but I’m working on it!

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Arduino GPS Replacement for NexStar GPS

Ok, after lots of research and experimentation, I’ve completed my Arduino Nano based GPS for replacing the NexStar GPS modules.  I’m going to give a detailed walk through of everything here so that it’s well documented, although it may take a few posts due to the picture limits per post.  I started from Barry’s repository on GitHub because he was doing the same mount and I didn’t need the display that others have added.  However, what I didn’t realize until I was part way through everything that the firmware there was incomplete and never actually worked.  Thus I had to merge some of Miro’s (ForestTree) fork back into my code to complete everything.  There are two main changes I made.  The first was to fix the serial interface so that it works as Celestron intends it to without any additional hardware (no diodes, etc.).  It also uses the busy control line like it’s supposed to.  The second was to add support for the GNSS NMEA sentences so that it responds to the $GNxxx sentences that the BN-220 generates when GLONASS satellites are visible, as well as the $GPxxx sentences from straight GPS.  I’ve created a fork from Miro’s version at https://github.com/L…ulf/nexstar_gps.  The way I uploaded it did a full replace on the .ino and isn’t giving a proper difference view, but I didn’t want to fool with figuring out how to fix it.  If someone wants to give me an easy way, I’ll see about doing so, but there are plenty of other difference viewers you can use.  


Barry’s wiring description wasn’t very clear on the wiring to the telescope, so I had to reverse engineer the NXW434 PIC microcontroller board that the Arduino is replacing.  

This connects to the NXW249 GPS bpard:

which coupled with the active GPS antenna makes up the parts being replaced by the BN-220.

I created a schematic for the NXW434 and posted it in my repository. 

For reference, I also opened up my CN16 and found the exact same circuit combinations.  You can see the blue AUX serial connector on the right and the white GPS connector in front. The newer CPC style GPS module is under the antenna similar to the BN-220. Two Microchip 12F629 PICs identical to that on the NXW434 provide the serial interface.  The PIC with the red dot is the equivalent of the NSW434, while the one with the blue dot runs the compass and level (long clear tube with a metal ball in it) at the back.  Those latter components are elsewhere in the NexStar GPS. 

Rather than removing the NexStar GPS from the observatory, I rigged up a voltage regulator so I could plug the NXW434 into my NexStar 8SE mount. (Ignore all the other chips stored on the breadboard.  They’re just stored there from old projects!)  This allowed me to hook up my oscilloscope so I could monitor the communication and confirm what each pin was actually doing.

So what I had already suspected, then determined with the oscilloscope and finally confirmed looking at the CN16 wiring, is that the four wire interface on the NXW434 is 5V power, ground, the drop/busy line, and a combined TX/RX line.  It’s NOT separate TX and RX lines as you might think from Barry’s repository.  That’s why Miro’s AVX design works with a single wire.  It turns out the hand controller still reads the GPS fine without the busy line being pulled low.  It’s just that anything else (e.g. a serial or Wi-Fi interface) could potentially attempt to access the interface at the same time and cause a collision since the busy line isn’t low.

Here’s my Arduino GPS on the test jig.  The BN-220 GNSS module on the left is connected to the Arduino Nano on the right. The jumper temporarily connects serial TX and RX pins, while allowing me to disconnect and reconnect the USB serial port for programming.  

A look at the back side shows more modifications.  The resistors in the middle had to be removed because they connect the CH430 (or FT232) to the serial port on the Atmel ATmega processor. (Funny that Atmel was bought by Microchip who makes the PIC processors!) The resistors are relatively low values, but enough so that if you hook up a normal serial TTL connection to the Atmega you can still drive the lines high or low against the signal from the USB to serial adapter.  However, if you were to leave them on and connect to the common buss on the NexStars, they’d still drive the line and cause Error 16 and 17 when the hand controller starts up and tries to talk to the motor controller.  However, I still needed jumpers for debugging, and started with them on the surface mount pads, but they pulled off quickly. Now they’re directly on the pins.  Of course this same arrangement could have been used with an external USB adapter, or you could use an Ardunio mini with separate adapter like Miro’s setup.

Here’s a closeup of the wiring after removing all the jumpers (after programming it first!).  As you can see, no additional circuitry is required.  The schematic for this setup can be found here.  Note that I might have rearranged the location of the drop line vs. the GPS software serial port had I not already soldered up the GPS connection to match that of the previous designs.

On the back side you can see the solder bridge between TX and RX after removing the jumpers.

I’ll add picture of the installation later, but the BN-220 module with attach directly on the double-stick tape that I pulled the active GPS antenna off of.

The Arduino and wire will then route down to the connector at the bottom of the fork arm.

Note that the exact same firmware and circuit board setup can be used to connect to the AUX port on any Celestron mount.  Simply feed the +12V line into the Vin pin of the Arduino Nano.  You can find the schematic in my repository here.  At this point I’m debating turning my NexStar 8SE into the (presumably) first NexStar GPS 8SE, adding this mod internally.  That way I don’t have to fool with the CN16 anymore.

I’ll be posting a video of the testing when I have the chance, but here’s a screen shot from the oscilloscope.  This is showing a transaction between the hand controller and motor control board.  The top trace is the serial communication.  The bottom is the drop line, presumably named that because you drop it low to indicate busy.  

After installing the upgrade in my NexStar GPS, this is what it looks like.

I attached the GPS module directly to the previous sticky tape and used a tie-wrap pad to attach the Arduino nearby. I had made more than enough cable to reach the connector, but went ahead and left it long, which meant bundling at the end with another tie wrap sticky pad. I went ahead and routed behind the arm like the RF cable had run to the old GPS module.

The modification works fine, although I can actually see the blue GPS LED shining through cracks in the case, so I might get in there and cover it up someday.  

I also decided to order another BN-220 and quickly built an internal GPS modification for my 8SE. Works great! I would hazard a guess that this is the world’s first NexStar GPS 8SE! 

I created a jumper to tap in to the hand control connector on the serial board so that I didn’t have to modify any of the internal parts.

The body of the arm is all metal, so I had to install the GPS in the base, but it works fine there.

At any rate, hopefully all this will help others who want to make this mod.  

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Upgrade Complete!

We’re now running on the latest versions of Gallery 3, PHP, and WordPress, and everything seems to be working fine. There are some glitches in a couple of Gallery modules, but none that appear to affect the user experience. I’ll work on fixing those in the background in the coming weeks. Enjoy the website!

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Upgrading Photo Gallery

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but I’m going to bite the bullet and upgrade my Gallery 3 based photo gallery V3.09 to the new “Gallery Revival” V3.10. In 2015, the development on the Gallery 3 project (galleryproject.org) ended and the support site was locked down. In an effort to maintain support for users like myself who were happy with Gallery 3 but needed to make tweaks and enhancements, I started the Gallery 3 Yahoo group. This has helped numerous users keep their Gallery 3 installations plugging along, but web technology, security issues, and the like have changed the environment considerably since the Gallery 3 development project was started many years ago. Thankfully, at the beginning of this year, an industrious member of the Yahoo group released a new version of the Gallery software that brings it up to date with some of the latest web functions. If all goes well, it won’t change the way anything works from the user side, but from the web server, it will allow running the latest, safest version of all server software. So, I plan to make the migration “as soon as I can.” It shouldn’t take long once I get started, but if I don’t get started this evening, it might be a few days before I get to it. At any rate, I’ll post again when the change has been made. Let me know if you encounter any problems!

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Visit my YouTube channel!

I finally gave in and started my own YouTube channel for various videos I’ve been putting together. While I’ve typically done photographic records that I could come back and document with text, I found I wasn’t doing that very often, even though I had tons of pictures available. Since the public trend is toward video “how-to” guides, with the recent purchase of a large 3D printer kit that was not documented properly at release, I decided to try my hand at video logs instead of just photographic logs. They may be a bit rough, and editing still takes just as long as documenting a bunch of photos, but they’re a start. The only downside is that my photographic documentation of some of these projects has suffered due to the concentration on video.

At any rate, I’ve set up my YouTube channel at the previous link and moved a couple of my astronomy videos there, along with other videos on the 3D printer and other topics. I’ll probably still upload appropriate videos here in parallel, but please take a look and subscribe if you’re interested.



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Dyson’s Radio, Free from Friday through Sunday, February 24th, 2019

See the previous post for details on the book. For some reason the originally scheduled sale on Wednesday didn’t fire.

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Published My First eBook!

When an amateur astronomer detects a modulated signal in the flash of a nova burst, the race is on to capture and decode the signal before it’s too late.

This science fiction short story is my first self-published eBook through Amazon, although it’s not my first sci-fi short story.  Of course I’ve written plenty of technical magazine articles and papers, not to mention untold numbers of online posts, articles, how-tos, etc., but fiction is something that, beyond not just having time to write, I never felt I could dedicate the time to it, much less carry a story to completion.  Thus, the most I’ve been willing to shoot for is a couple of short stories.

Leaving out some stories I wrote back in high school and college that I’d love to dust off if I could find them, my first relatively contemporary short story was “Goodbye Mr. Smith”, a sad and extremely short story from a sad time in my life, that surprisingly has components in common with the end of Dyson’s Radio.  In “A Dark Matter”  (currently awaiting a response from Analog)  I discovered a narrative approach that worked well for me.  Thus, when I came up with the idea for Dyson’s Radio, I knew exactly what I needed to say and where I needed to end up.  However, even I didn’t know everything I’d discover along the way.  The story ended up being quite a bit longer than I expected.  It also became so current and topical that I decided it couldn’t wait for a long editorial review process.  After a quick response from Asimov saying they wouldn’t be able to do it in time, I decided to go for direct publication to be sure that people had a chance to read it as it was intended to be experienced.

While I could easily have padded the story considerably by explaining many of the things mentioned, it was really written for the true space geeks among us who will immediately understand most of the references that the characters already know.  Thus, if you’re here it’s probably because you already love the idea of space and space exploration and don’t need anyone talking down to you about it.  However, there is a tremendous amount of background information I put together to keep the story plausible, and I envision writing a technical article on “Building Dyson’s Radio” to be published sometime in the future.  And who knows.  If I get brave enough I may even revisit this world.  There’s certainly plenty to build on, but I just don’t know if I’m up to the challenge!

And if you’re lucky enough to be reading this today (December 6th, 2018), it’s currently free on Amazon.  Merry Christmas!

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